Skip to main content

The Confusion of Languages


The Confusion of Languages

New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin praised Siobhan Fallon’s 2011 short story collection, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE, for its "gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families.” Though the subject matter remains the same, in THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES, her perceptive and engrossing first novel, Fallon pinpoints the lives of two American women, married to soldiers stationed in Jordan as the Arab Spring roils the Middle East in 2011. It’s a carefully crafted story of unbridgeable distances in the lives of both people and cultures, one that’s infused with a deep sense of realism Fallon brings to it from her own life as a military spouse.

When Margaret Brickshaw and her Army officer husband Crick arrive in Amman with their 14-month-old son, Mather, in January 2011, like other new arrivals they’re assigned a sponsor military family to help ease them into life at their new post. In their case, that’s Cassie Hugo and her husband Dan, themselves childless despite persistent efforts, a status (along with the Brickshaws’ much larger apartment) that almost immediately ignites Cassie’s resentment. Her unease at the fact that Crick may have more than a casual interest in her doesn't help matters.

"THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES succeeds both because of the central mystery that propels the novel and because of the emotional acuteness of Siobhan Fallon’s writing."

Despite her reservations, like a good soldier's wife, Cassie is determined to carry out her mission. She introduces Margaret to a theme-park version of Jordan, careful not to stray far from the places where Americans still feel comfortable, despite frequent and raucous street demonstrations in support of the burgeoning uprisings in countries like Egypt and Libya.

But Margaret is a “woman of tangents,” who has a penchant, while driving, for hitting every red light where “beggars and shysters can rap on her window with dirty knuckles,” selling her “things she doesn’t need, lighters for cigarettes she doesn’t smoke, kites that Mather is too young to fly, cheap polyester socks Crick would never wear,” and possesses an intense, if naive, desire to immerse herself in the local culture.

A minor accident at one of those intersections launches the novel’s suspenseful plot. Though she’s clearly not at fault, as a foreigner and a woman, Margaret must appear at the local police station to pay the small fine, the “guilt fee,” that will resolve the incident. By this time, five months after the Brickshaws' arrival, both Crick and Dan have been deployed to the NATO post in Italy, and so Margaret leaves Mather in Cassie’s care while she takes off on this routine, if irritating, errand.

From there, the novel settles into a tightly controlled structure, alternating chapters from Cassie's point of view as a long afternoon drifts into evening, with excerpts from a journal Cassie discovers in Margaret's bedroom. It’s an effective device, helped by the fact that the voices of Cassie and Margaret are equally intimate and engaging, and so there’s little desire to trade the perspective of one for the other. As Cassie's alarm at Margaret's absence grows, in the pages of the diary she discovers aspects of her friend's life that include her role as her mother’s caretaker in her final illness and the unusual circumstances that brought Margaret and Crick together.

But as much as this novel is about the complex, emotionally fragile relationship between Margaret and Cassie --- one that forces them into an awkward friendship poorly equipped with the tools they need to make it work --- it’s also a classic tale of Americans’ discomfort in a foreign culture, one where the natives regard them as an invading force, in spirit if not in fact.

Chafing at the cautions of prudence, Margaret is determined to free herself from Cassie’s tether and immerse herself in the life of her new home, a place where even the most innocent public physical contact between men and women can be dangerously misconstrued. Margaret's headstrong, if well-intentioned, openness draws her close to Hassan, an embassy guard, and Saleh, the caretaker at her apartment building, with terrible consequences Cassie slowly learns she may have helped set in motion.

THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES succeeds both because of the central mystery that propels the novel and because of the emotional acuteness of Siobhan Fallon’s writing. The compulsion to race through the book to learn Margaret’s fate is tempered by the desire to dwell inside the minds of Cassie and Margaret and ponder the tragedy that ensues when communication fails between friends and societies. Whether or not she chooses to mine her experience of military life in her future fiction, with this novel Fallon has secured her status as a strong and profoundly talented writer.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on June 30, 2017

The Confusion of Languages
by Siobhan Fallon

  • Publication Date: June 27, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0399158928
  • ISBN-13: 9780399158926